Birmingham Barons

White Sox prospect Alec Hansen thinks 2018 season could be even better than breakout season

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White Sox prospect Alec Hansen thinks 2018 season could be even better than breakout season

Look out for Alec Hansen.

The White Sox prospect thinks 2018 could be even better with all that he’s learned about managing himself in his first full season. That's pretty scary when you consider that Hansen, who finished at Double-A Birmingham, led the minors in strikeouts and earned two promotions in 2017.

The No. 6 White Sox prospect (No. 95 overall according to MLBPipeline.com) is even more optimistic about his second full season.

“(The first full season) was great that it taught me about my arm and how my arm is going feel in between every start and how my body is going to feel throughout the season,” Hansen said on a conference call. “I can go into this offseason and work out and get my body the way I want it to going into spring training and be able to maintain that throughout the season next year.”

“I'll have a lot more confidence and experience. By the end of next year that experience and confidence in my body will be where it needs to be to be in the major leagues for good.”

Hansen has plenty of reason to feel confidence. The No. 49 pick of the 2016 draft followed a stellar pro debut with an outstanding 2017 campaign in which he struck out 191 batters in 141 1/3 innings. Believed to have No. 1-starter type stuff, Hansen put it all together and carved a niche for himself in an organization loaded with pitching prospects.

Hansen said the final two starts of the season at Double-A Birmingham, in which he struck out 17 batters in 10 1/3 innings, further convinced him how his stuff would play at higher levels.

"That’s something I'll remember for the rest of my life that I led the minor leagues in strikeouts this year, which is pretty cool,” Hansen said. “You got to think, it was at the lower levels, it was in A-ball where guys swing a lot and are pretty aggressive at the plate. But it was nice to see I went up to Double-A and still had quite a few strikeouts. That was kind of reassuring.”

So, too, were the promotions.

Hansen started the season at Single-A Kannapolis and made 13 starts before he was sent to Single-A Winston-Salem after striking out 92 batters in 72 2/3 innings. He also excelled for the Dash, striking out 82 batters in 58 1/3 innings. Right before the season ended, Hansen got the call one last time. He went 11-8 with a 2.80 ERA and struck out 191 batters in 141 1/3 innings over 26 starts.

“Honestly, I had no idea what was going to happen to me this year,” Hansen said. “If you asked me at the beginning of the season where do I expect to end up, I wouldn’t have said Double-A. But if you asked me toward after the All-Star break and after a couple of starts at Winston-Salem where I started to pick it up a little bit, then I was kind of hoping I was going to finish at Double-A.”

White Sox name Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech minor leaguers of month

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White Sox name Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech minor leaguers of month

As the White Sox minor-league affiliates wrap up their respective seasons, a couple of top prospects were honored on Tuesday.

The White Sox named Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech their minor league player and pitcher of the month for August and September.

Jimenez, who is currently MLB.com's No. 7 overall prospect, had a batting average of .345 with seven home runs, 19 RBI and 21 runs scored in 30 games between Double-A Birmingham and Single-A Winston Salem.

Jimenez, who was acquired by the White Sox in a five-player deal with the Cubs for Jose Quintana on July 13, was also named to the 2017 Carolina League mid and postseason All-Star teams.

Jimenez finished the 2017 season with a .312/.379/.568 slash line and had 19 home runs and 65 RBI in 89 games.

Kopech, who is MLB.com's No. 12 prospect, went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA and 38 strikeouts across five starts between Triple-A Charlotte and Birmingham in August and September.

Kopech was recently named the Southern league Most Outstanding pitcher and was also selected to the Southern League mid and postseason All-Star Teams. Kopech compiled a 9-8 record with a 2.88 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 25 starts this season.

The White Sox will welcome both Jimenez and Kopech to Guaranteed Rate Field this week.

How Michael Kopech's rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program played a role in Friday's promotion

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USA TODAY

How Michael Kopech's rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program played a role in Friday's promotion

He’s never pitched more innings and yet Michael Kopech feels great from a physical standpoint. The White Sox prospect -- who was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in a surprising move on Friday -- is also throwing as well as he has at any point in his young career.

Kopech and those around him attribute how he feels on the mound in spite of a large innings total to a rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program. Kopech, who spends up to an hour a day in the gym in between starts during the season, works out 15-18 hours a week during the offseason in order to be prepared to withstand the rigors of a full season. With an 0.66 ERA over his last 41 innings, Kopech feels that work has been validated.

“There’s a lot of natural fatigue throughout the season,” Kopech said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job in the offseason of preparing myself for a full-innings load and that’s what I’ve done every offseason.

“Unfortunately, until this year I haven’t had that opportunity. Now that I’ve finally got the opportunity, I’m starting to see the work that I did, it’s paid off. I do feel like that has had a lot to do with (the success).”

Kopech has done many things to impress his now former Birmingham Barons manager Julio Vinas. But one event that recently stood out was when Kopech hit 99 mph on the radar gun with his 95th pitch of the game without any extra effort. The right-hander naturally produced the same velocity fastball he had earlier in the game.

Vinas has little doubt about the origin of the pitch.

“He’s a workhorse,” Vinas said. “I get here early. He’s here and always doing something to better himself, whether you see him in the outfield getting some extra running in, you see him in the weight room, he gets after it. It just shows how hard he works. To maintain that 99-mph fastball when 95 pitches into a game, you’ve got to be in great shape. He is because you never see him laboring.”

But Kopech was struggling in June when he posted a 6.95 ERA in five starts and walked 18 batters in 22 innings. The stretch had the White Sox wondering if MLB Pipeline’s No. 12-ranked prospect had hit a wall. The pitcher had completed 75 innings by the end of June, which was 3 2/3 shy of what he totaled in all of 2016, including 22 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.

[MORE: Pair of White Sox top pitching prospects promoted] 

The White Sox made no certain plans, but determined they’d be vigilant in seeing how Kopech handled the workload. The team gave him a nine-day break in between starts around the All-Star Futures Game and made a mechanical adjustment with Kopech, too.

Just like that, Kopech has soared, which led to his promotion on Friday.

“Since then he’s on the best run he’s been on,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He’s in a really good place. But we’re constantly having conversations on his work, physically where he’s at, his weight and then obviously the on-field performance. Are there any indications of fatigue or anything like that? We’re near the stretch run and then the finish line and well aware of the innings and what he has done in the past.

“If he were to hit a wall and we feel like physically he needed to be shut down we certainly were open to it. We weren’t going to force any issues, but he’s shown no signs. He’s a physically gifted guy who works very hard, has a goal in mind to finish a full season. He’s on track to that do that.”

Kopech thinks it’s due to the offseason work he has always put In but never had a chance to test out. This is the first time he’s had the chance to pitch a full season as 2015 ended with his 50-game suspension and the first half of 2016 was wiped out by injury.

Kopech said he works out two to three hours a day for five or six days in the offseason. He’s also “getting after it” in the gym for an hour on three of the four days in between his starts.

On road trips, Kopech also eats pre-packaged meals prepared by a nutritionist rather than normal clubhouse fare to eat healthy.

Kopech was expected to start on Friday at Birmingham before he was promoted. Now the plan calls for him to start on Monday at Charlotte. If he stays on a regular schedule, Kopech would be in line for three starts at Charlotte, a plan for which he feels physically prepared.

“I haven’t really felt very fatigued,” Kopech said. “I’ve felt comfortable. I feel like I’m within myself. I don’t feel like I’m overthrowing when I need to rear back. I don’t feel like I’m losing any velo. I’ve felt pretty comfortable in probably close to double the amount of innings I threw last year.”